*No plans for early closure of schools ahead of Christmas, Education Ministry insist*
The Education Minister has insisted there are no plans to extend school holidays over Christmas as a way to combat Covid-19.
Michelle McIlveen was asked during Assembly question time about speculation that a “circuit break” mass closure of schools prior to the scheduled festive break was being considered.
Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw urged Ms McIlveen to respond to the rumours about such a move.
Ms McIlveen replied: “This was mooted in August before schools started back that there would be a circuit breaker at Halloween and that didn’t happen. And I know that there have been a number of press queries and statements in relation to that (circuit break ahead of Christmas). There are no plans for mass closure or use for circuit breaker in schools at this point.
The Executive’s decision on Covid responses in school has been and will continue to be guided by the medical and scientific evidence.”
She added: “I am aware of the harm that has been caused to children and young people by school closures. It’s in all of our interests that we continue to provide access to classroom-based teaching for all pupils and I think really as a society, while we are very conscious of watching out for the health service, I think we need to be very mindful that we watch out for our schools.”
She said it was important to ensure that behaviour outside classrooms – such as in playgrounds and other settings – mirrored the steps to prevent transmission within schools.
The minister added: “The Executive was very clear in relation to the fact that we have to make sure that our young people maximise the number of days that they are in school because I think the long-term impacts on them in regards to not only their education but also their mental and emotional wellbeing is incredibly important and we need to be mindful of that.”
During question time, Ms McIlveen was also asked about absence rates within schools.
She said attendance levels were not as high as she would like, but stressed that Covid-19 was not the only factor.
Ms McIlveen said attendance for September and October in primary schools was 93.2% – down from 95.1% last year. For post primary schools, attendance for the same period was 91% – compared with 93.1% last year.
The minister said absence rates for non-Covid reasons remained significantly higher than absences linked to the virus.
“What we can conclude from that data is that while Covid is a factor, it’s not by any means the only factor at play,” she said.